Wood entered his teenage years and got a small but important part in The Ice Storm, a critically lauded, emotionally raw drama starring Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline that tackled middle-class morality in the 1970s. The timing was perfect. “A real shift took place when I was a teenager,” he says of the memorable moments that sparked his acting epiphany. “Working on The Ice Storm opened my eyes to the kinds of films that I could be part of. The dark intensity of that script, along with the chance to work with extraordinary director Ang Lee, represented a real move forward for me. I was getting older and suddenly I realized that I wanted to try roles slightly off-center and not quite as wholesome.”
Not long afterward came the role of Wood’s life: playing J.R.R. Tolkien’s ring-bearing hero, the innocent hobbit of the Shire in The Lord of the Rings, a character whose quest through the fantasy lands of Middle-earth alongside fellow hobbit Sam and the evil Gollum formed the trilogy’s central journey. Director Peter Jackson had already screened more than 150 British actors for the important part. Then Wood submitted a tape of himself costumed as the character, running through the woods and reading dialogue from audition scenes. The director had finally found his Frodo.
All three films in the trilogy were filmed concurrently in New Zealand at national parks and studio soundstages. Halfway into production, the team started working six-day weeks: climbing mountaintops, fighting imaginary monsters (that were later added digitally) and walking — sometimes incredibly long distances. It was exhausting work, yet Wood was always able to muster up enthusiasm to don the uncomfortable prosthetic hobbit feet. The epic experience marked his first real extended time far from home and family, and upon reflection, he says it was a period of great personal growth. He still holds outstanding memories of his house on Wellington’s Breaker Bay, a scenic area that was perfect for watching dramatic storms sweeping in from the sea.
“It was just an incredibly profound experience,” Wood says. “I was 18 when I flew to New Zealand, and though principal photography only lasted 16 months — only! — the entire project took the better part of four years. It was a significant and deeply enriching part of my life. I grew into a man, made some of the best friends in my life, traveled to different parts of the world and gained a connection to another country in a very intimate way.”
Today, Wood can’t think of a single downside to the entire Rings experience. He feels the trilogy’s enormous success (earning 17 Oscars and nearly $3 billion at the box office) afforded him many more acting opportunities, allowing him to consciously avoid the casting curse that inflicted George Reeves, Mark Hamill and others who played iconic fantasy characters. “There’s definitely a very strong association with those movies that will never die,” he concedes. “The only way to veer people from only thinking of me in that way is to continue to work and make things that are different.”
“I was lucky because, even though I played a lot of child roles — obviously — they were in films that weren’t made for children.”
Wood took on decidedly un-Hobbitesque roles during his breaks on the Rings films, as well as immediately after their releases. He made the quirky Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (directed by music-video auteur Michel Gondry), Sin City (based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel), and Green Street Hooligans (about ultraviolent U.K. football fans). In addition, he provided the lead voice for the Oscar-winning animated film Happy Feet (co-directed by Mad Max’s George Miller) and will appear next year in Syfy’s Treasure Island (a fun assignment that called for two weeks’ worth of shooting in sunny Puerto Rico).
“I’ve always been interested in all kinds of films and visions,” Wood says. “The careers I respect most are those of multifaceted actors like Johnny Depp and Gary Oldman. It hasn’t really been by design, it’s simply that my taste is pretty broad and I’m always looking to challenge myself as an actor. I want to be part of very different and creatively satisfying projects.” Which, for Wood, means transitioning from friendly Frodo into serial killer Kevin in Sin City, then providing voice work for the young dragon in the Legend of Spyro video game before appearing in a long-form Beastie Boys video.